A&E

Savoring the details

Tre Monti masters the finer points of fine dining in Los Altos

Table settings can say a lot about a restaurant. At Tre Monti, the 6-month-old southern Italian restaurant in downtown Los Altos, the table displays are impeccable. Spotless stemware and shiny utensils align atop perfectly spaced tables with military precision, signaling to guests that details are important here. During a pair of visits, I observed a similar pinpoint focus in areas ranging from design to presentation to the careful sourcing of ingredients.

The owners dictating Tre Monti's discerning standards hail from Calabria, a sun-dappled region north of Sicily. Mario Nucci, a prolific Bay Area contractor, supervised the build-out and remains active in daily operations; Giovanni Messina performs general manager and sommelier duties; and Mattia Galiano serves as head chef, creating an authentic, made-from-scratch menu spotlighting the lighter fare -- simply grilled meats, farm-fresh vegetables and a preference for olive oil over heavy cream -- favored by southern Italians.

Front man Messina aims to create an elegant dining room, but concedes the modern guest's desire for comfort.

"I want everyone to feel at home here, whether they're dressed up or wearing jeans," he said.

Nucci makes this convergence of styles possible with an industrial chic design that strikes a balance between formal and casual. Wood and metal finishes are interspersed throughout the rectangular, 16-table restaurant. (There are an additional five outdoor tables near the entry and six seats at the cozy bar.) Vibrant Italian landscape paintings and framed promotional pieces adorn the pale yellow walls. A skylight over the bar illuminates the back area and opens up the space.

During my initial visit on a Tuesday night, there was little time to scan the near-capacity crowd before the kitchen delivered a basket of house-baked bread. The warm, soft slices were accompanied by a zesty, deep-green dipping sauce composed of Castelvetrano olives from Sicily, fresh parsley and extra virgin olive oil. These tempting first bites provided an auspicious start to the meal.

I then enjoyed an order of creamy burrata ($18), which was sprinkled with caramelized walnuts and drizzled with a Modena balsamic vinegar reduction. Slices of salty, finely-cut prosciutto ringed the silky round of cheese, adding striking visual appeal to the full-flavored dish. (Be sure to charge your phone before visiting Tre Monti. Chef Galiano and his crew turn out a steady parade of eye-catching, Instagrammable plates.)

We sampled three of the six salads on the menu and gave equally high marks to both the Tre Monti ($13), a hearty butter lettuce salad with roasted walnuts, gorgonzola, organic Fuji apples and champagne vinegar dressing, and the "bietole e caprino" ($13), a sensational combination of slow-roasted beets, caramelized walnuts, crumbled goat cheese and orange-balsamic vinaigrette. The "pera" ($13) was the consensus also-ran due to an overuse of bitter baby arugula that overpowered the promising trio of Bartlett pears, pistachios and pecorino cheese.

The evening culminated with our exquisite entrées. My "cavatelli alla calabrisella" ($24) was a succulent creation of freshly prepared, small shell pasta mixed with tender pork shoulder and a luscious Calabrian sausage ragù. A dining companion gave a rapturous reception to his "taglierini alla carbonara di mare" ($24), a bed of housemade noodles layered with a mouthwatering medley of seafood: salmon, white sea bass, branzino and more. A third in our party veered from pasta and was richly rewarded with the delicate "turbante di spigola" ($29), a flaky Mediterranean sea bass stuffed with breaded zucchini and lemon zest.

Tre Monti's extensive wine list emphasizes selections from Italy and California. The collection includes a laudable number of affordable wines by the glass, offering over a dozen in the $8 to $12 range. The intense, full-bodied Mosaikon Nero D'Avola ($40 for a bottle) proved to be the ideal pairing with my savory pasta.

During a subsequent lunch visit, my table was one of four occupied on an unseasonably warm Wednesday afternoon. (Like other upscale downtown restaurants, Tre Monti will be challenged to lure fine-dining patrons during working hours.) Settling in to the more subdued vibe, I ordered the "campagnolo panini" ($14) a tasty, toasted grilled chicken sandwich with robiola cheese and fire-roasted bell peppers, accompanied by crispy Yukon potatoes. A delectable side order of piping hot, organic grilled asparagus with Modena balsamic ($7) was substantial enough to be a main course. The sole disappointment was the underwhelming Calabrese pizza ($19), which contained an overabundance of tomato sauce and could have used a bit more time in the oven.

The staff was consistently friendly and solicitous, though the level of service kicked up several notches during the much busier dinner. Servers demonstrated thorough menu knowledge and checked back regularly.

Tre Monti has made an impressive, assured debut. The restaurant creates a complete dining experience by breaking down the details, taking things one gorgeous tabletop at a time.

Tre Monti

270 Main St., Los Altos

650-935-2197

Tremontilosaltos.com

Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., 5-9 p.m.

Reservations: Yes

Credit cards: Yes

Parking: Lot and street

Alcohol: Beer and wine

Happy hour: No

Corkage: $20

Takeout: Yes

Outdoor dining: Yes

Noise level: Loud

Bathroom cleanliness: Excellent

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